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NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali pirates scooped up by U.S. and European warships are sitting in legal limbo on the high seas. Bringing them to the lawless Somali capital for trial is not an option and Kenya says it won't take any more, though diplomats wonder if the government in Nairobi may be trying to wring more cash from the international community.
Among the more than two dozen captured pirates being held on international warships are 11 suspected pirates who attacked two American warships this month. They haven't yet been transferred anywhere. Lt. Matt Allen of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet says the American government is "reviewing its options for disposition."
Kenyan officials say pirates are putting an undue strain on the country's congested justice system. But diplomats say only 118 of Kenya's 53,000 prisoners are convicted or suspected pirates.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Thursday that Kenya is still helping anti-piracy efforts by helping to track ransom money, providing a refueling base and by patrolling its own coastline and said other countries should play their part.
Such words have gone down badly with countries collectively paying more than $1 million a day for the international navies patrolling the waters off east Africa.
Furthermore, the international community has pledged $4 million for Kenya to upgrade its prisons and criminal justice system in a program linked to its willingness to try pirate suspects, said Alan Cole, the counter-piracy program coordinator for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. About $1 million has been spent since last May, he said.
Some navies have taken home for trial pirates who attacked their own ships or citizens. But most are reluctant to take back every suspect due to difficulties transporting them, fears they may claim asylum and jurisdiction issues. If a Somali pirate attacks a Liberian-flagged and Egyptian-owned vessel with Filipino and Indian crew onboard and is captured, it's not clear which country should take the lead in prosecuting the suspect.
In 2008, Kenya signed an agreement with Britain to take captured pirates from its warships, but before a similar agreement with the European Union was signed Kenya presented a 12-page wishlist of expensive items and money for retreats, two officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. They agreed to share the information only if they weren't identified to avoid reprisals from Kenyan officials.
The list included a helicopter, armored vehicles and phone jamming equipment, as well as computer equipment needed to update Kenya's antiquated courts. One of the officials described diplomats running around Nairobi buying up color printers — one of the least expensive items requested.
"All the reasonable requests of the department of public prosecutions, the prison service and the police have been met by donors," Cole said.
But Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako told journalists earlier this month that countries that signed agreements with Kenya had reneged on promises to help.
"We are not prepared just so quickly to prosecute so many (pirates)," said Wako, who gave his office six months to terminate the agreements.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said the lack of support is why Kenya turned away captured pirate suspects during the past two weeks.
"We have declined to accept captured pirates from some of our friendly countries and told them to try it elsewhere because some of them promised to support us. They did not support us. Others supported us but not well enough," he said.
The European Union flotilla alone is costing around $1 million every day, said one international official involved in anti-piracy efforts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The EU currently has six ships in the area. NATO and two Combined Task Forces also have ships off east Africa and so do many nations operating independently.
"Some countries provide a navy, others can help with prosecution," Cole said. "It's a pity that Kenya, which was a leading force in prosecutions, has decided to take a break."
So far the only other country to sign an agreement similar to Kenya's is the tiny island nation of the Seychelles. Thirty-one of its 370 prisoners are suspected pirates, and the country's only prison has a capacity of 400.
Somalia itself is a failed state with no working justice system, although hundreds of pirates have already been taken to the overcrowded prisons of the semiautonomous region of Puntland. A handful of captured pirates are also being held in Yemen and the Maldives.
Already, most pirate suspects are released by navies, which confiscate their weapons and some of their small boats and release them with enough food and fuel to reach land.
Piracy expert Roger Middleton warned that unless more countries are willing to prosecute pirates, a situation may evolve where those who attack vessels of poor nations are released and those who attack rich nations with navies capable of detaining them are taken home for prosection.